Cassocks and Costumes

I had a funny experience in my neighborhood the other day. I was getting into my car to head to church. I was wearing the traditional ‘uniform’ of an Orthodox priest – a black robe (called a ‘cassock’) and a cross. While I don’t always wear it everywhere, my neighbors are used to seeing me in my unique ‘get up’ and generally take it in stride. But today there was someone visiting from out of town, getting out of his truck. He looked at me, and, perhaps considering the time of year it is, he asked, “So, are you really a priest or is that a costume?” I answered that I am a priest, and he very kindly said, “God bless you.” I was comforted at the simple gesture, and didn’t find the question offensive at all, but honest. Let’s face it, in Crawfordsville Indiana the sight of an Orthodox priest in a cassock is out of the ordinary. I’ve even been reluctant to wear it at times because the point of wearing a cassock is not to be odd, or to draw attention to oneself. It is especially not meant to try to appear ‘religious’ or ‘righteous’ (Jesus had some pretty strict warnings against that sort of thing!). The original meaning behind a priest wearing a cassock has to do with simplicity (not having to worry about what to wear!), but also to serve as a reminder to him of the responsibility he has to live as an example. Believe me, some days I feel like putting on a cassock is like wearing a costume, as I’m often reminded that I’m not worthy, and it is only by God’s grace and mercy, and the amen of the people of God that I’m filling this role in this community.

But while I’m still sometimes reticent to wear this ‘uniform’ in public (sorry, I’m an introvert, it’s a weakness of mine that I like to fly under the radar sometimes), I’ve had other experiences that reveal something else about donning such visibly unique attire. People respond to it. And the response seems to show that people want to know there is someone who will listen, someone who is praying, someone who still believes. I’m not saying I am a person who fulfills this very well, or that my cassock or ordination certificate makes me more qualified or able to provide these things for people in need. I believe that all Christians are called to bear Christ’s healing presence into a world that is desperately hurting. I believe that, as Paul says, there are a variety of callings and gifts. Yes, some of us are called to be ministers, but our role is no greater in the eyes of God than the one who shows hospitality, or teaches, or bears any of the other gifts of the Spirit. But wearing my cassock has shown me that people will ask, and do want to know there are believers out there, especially when they are in the midst of facing great difficulty in their lives.

I was once in an airport minding my own business, very tired and getting ready to put on my headphones and relax before my flight. A man, a complete stranger sat down beside me to ask if I could pray for his wife who had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was wearing my cassock. He was in a lonely place, away from home and just wanted to know there was someone who believed, who could listen and pray. Another time I quickly stopped in to a Wal Mart to pick up a quick item. A worker came up to me and shared her story. She was trying to get her life back together after some very hard times. She simply asked if I would pray for her. I didn’t go into Wal Mart in a frame of mind of being a pastor, I went in to grab some groceries. But I was wearing my cassock. The lesson I learned from these experiences was not that there is some magical power in the cassock. The lesson I learned is that people are hurting, and they respond to knowing where to find a believer when they need one. One of the most convincing arguments I’ve ever heard for why clergy should wear a ‘uniform’ is the same reason a police officer does. If you need help, you know where to look, who to ask.

But when it comes to sharing the love and mercy of Christ, and the Good News of the Gospel to a hurting world, it’s not just the uniformed who are called to carry this. We might serve as a reminder, as a signpost, but all who have been baptized into Christ are now called to be Christ-bearers – those who people can look to and find when they are in need. Not all believers are called to wear a uniform, but all are called to bear the Gospel with their lives. How will those who are in need, who need to know there are believers who will listen, pray, and walk with them in their hurt, know where to find help if we do not show it daily with our lives? We shall be known by the fruit, the evidence of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What is this evidence? It is more than our clothing (whether it’s a cassock, a cross, or a “Jesus” t-shirt), our church membership, or a bumper sticker. Paul tells us clearly “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23. When this shows in our life, people will begin to notice, and will begin to share their hurts and needs, because they will see a healing presence in their midst. They will know there are people who still believe, who still love, and who still pray.

So if you happen to see a priest or pastor around town, wearing a black robe and cross, or another ‘uniform’ that signifies his or her role, first, remember to pray for them, as their visibility brings much responsibility, but second, let it be a reminder that every Christian is called to bear visibly the more important thing, the fruits of the Spirit, the presence of Christ. Finally, don’t hesitate to come up and ask for prayer. The priest might just be stopping by the store to get a gallon of milk, but asking will remind him of his calling, his responsibility to the greater community, and will hopefully be a help to you in your time of need.